Film review: Sarah’s Key

by **

Dear Dad

Sarah’s Key unlocks the overpowering stench of anti-semitism and the shrill horrors of the Holocaust. The film seeks to explain the lifelong wounds on the afflicted and the indelible scars its posterity inherited. No less, also,  it is a stark reminder of French complicity in the Nazis’ fascist-driven atrocities, to reveal a legacy — albeit fading — of French guilt.

The movie opens in Paris in July 1942. It is the break of dawn. 10-year-old Sarah Starzynski (Melusine Mayance) and her little brother are playing under the covers. Their innocent giggles stop when they hear heavy knocks on the door. The French police have come to take the Jewish family away. As their mother contends with the intruders, Sarah hides her brother in a cupboard and locks the door. Making him promise to stay inside, Sarah plans to secure his release when it is safe. But when her attempts are thwarted — again and again — she  clings desperately to the key amidst the turmoil and carnage.

As unexpectedly abrupt as history is gratingly harsh, Director Gilles Paquet-Brenner cuts the sequence here. The audience is disgorged into present-day France.

It is 2009. Julia Jarmond (Kristin Scott Thomas) is an American journalist living in France. She is passionate about covering the 1942 Vel’ d’Hiv round up 67 years ago. Facing a generation evidently ignorant on the subject, she demands 12 pages of feature space in an English-language current affairs magazine that she writes for. Meanwhile, her French architect husband, Bertrand Tezac, prepares to renovate his parents’ dilapidated flat in Marais. Here, he hopes to settle down — to middle life — in bourgeois comfort with Julia and their 12-year-old daughter, Zoe.

However, when Julia inadvertently discovers that Bertrand’s grandparents took possession of the empty Marais flat in August 1942, she becomes suspicious. Delving deeper, she comes to realise that the flat her family is moving into is one from which a Starzynski family had been forcibly dispossessed — she has become part of an anecdote in her subject’s discourse. Perturbed by her husband’s ominous connection and disillusioned by his vehement rejection of the baby she is carrying, Julia obsesses herself with unearthing the truth and tracking down the survivors.

With keen and clinical precision, Paquet-Brenner hurls us back and forth: between the death and indignity in the Winter Veladrome and the urban discontent and untamed quest in the contemporary smartphone culture. We endure a bird’s eye view of the squalor at the deportation camp that is strewn with splayed and lifeless bodies; we almost smell the sweat, the blood and the excrement. We begin to tear when husbands are taken away and to weep when children are snatched from screaming mothers. Just when it starts to get too much, we are back to the boardroom and the thick of international trade.

Then, through Sarah’s bleary and feverish eyes, we wake up to strange faces and dust of the children’s camp. The plot, based on Tatiana De Rosnay’s novel, does not avoid entirely the schematic and melodramatic in depicting Sarah’s escape. Her serendipitous encounters with a humane policeman is a little tidy. So is the goodness of the farming couple who escorts Sarah back to her little brother — long-dead. Never mind the affluence of the Tezac family — we are told Bertrand’s grandfather provided financial support to the farming couple for Sarah’s upkeep.

Nevertheless, the film benefits immeasurably from an exceptional cast. Mayance’s young Sarah captures the vivid imagination of the emotional and impervious alike: her determined eyes and pursed lips deepen the hefty characterisation invested in one so young. With Paquet-Brennar’s tasteful out-of-focus framing, the grown-up Sarah effectively conveys a serenely disturbed presence. Neils Arestrup’s good-hearted farmer is entirely convincing as the reluctant samaritan. But, above all, it is Scott Thomas who carries the story to realise its full potential.

While Julia’s motive for dredging up the past — save for reassuring herself and her guilt-stricken father-in-law that financial redemptions had been made —  remains equivocal, Scott Thomas’ stirring performance encourages us instead to reflect on the intended message. In spite of man’s inevitable instinct to bury the past, there exists an inextricable link between perpetrators (direct or otherwise) and their victims — generation after generation.

Cleverly, Sarah’s Key reinforces this idea when Julia names her young daughter Sarah. There are few dry eyes as the emotionally stretched audience silently rejoices that, for all the horror, at least the innocence and the giggles have been resurrected where they had died. Saccharine, or not.